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Police Agencies Struggle With Hispanic Outreach

By Christopher Sherman | Sentinel Staff Writer

November 4, 2003
Copyright ©2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

WAHNETA -- Years ago, a corner grocery in this rural Polk County hamlet had a sign that denied entry to dogs, blacks and Mexicans.

Now there are more tortillerias than barbecue joints, businesses feature the Mexican flag's green, white and red and the language most often heard on the street is Español. That's why Polk Deputy Sheriff Luis Diaz has spent most of his four years with the department patrolling the dusty streets of an area south of Winter Haven that is more than 47 percent Hispanic and swells to even more during the citrus harvest.

"A lot of times, it's just asking for their name, date of birth and address," but sometimes it's intervening in a tense domestic dispute, said Diaz, one of nine Spanish-speaking deputies.

Law-enforcement agencies across Central Florida are struggling to match the skills of officers with the makeup of their communities. After all, routine interactions between authorities and the residents they serve can be anything but routine when there is a language barrier. Agencies in the region's most heavily Hispanic areas fall short of matching the language needs of their communities when stacked up with the demographics.

Many methods used

However, officials say they are taking steps to reach out to Hispanic communities in other ways while they compete for bilingual recruits.

For example, Kissimmee, which is 41.7 percent Hispanic according to census figures for 2000, and other agencies have Hispanic liaisons who use their bilingual skills to coax out residents who avoid contact with authorities because of language barriers or perceptions they bring from their native countries about corrupt law enforcement.

Polk County Sheriff Lawrence W. Crow Jr. is forming a Hispanic citizens-advisory committee to report to him on ways to improve service. Other agencies conduct Hispanic-citizens police academies to teach members of the community about the criminal-justice system or have Hispanic recruiters target bilingual job candidates. Overall, many of the programs and initiatives spotlighted in a national survey of ethnic-outreach programs last year can be found in Central Florida.

Anthony Claudio, a 15-year veteran of the Orlando Police Department and president of the Central Florida Chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, which partnered with the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the survey, said officers who speak Spanish "make very good role models, attract more attention from the Hispanic community and defuse a lot of situations."

Frustrated officers

Compensating officers for speaking another language could help in recruitment, Claudio said.

"They have to take into account that the bilingual officer has to stop his call to go help another officer who doesn't speak Spanish," he said.

Effective law enforcement hinges on communication, and often, officers are more frustrated than the people they serve when they can't communicate. Some officers argue it is not their job to learn another language, though most departments strongly encourage taking at least a "survival Spanish" class and reimburse officers for advanced courses.

Often officers get around the barrier by grabbing bystanders for quick translation, calling for a Spanish-speaking colleague or referring to cheat sheets with a few key phrases. Eddie Torres, who works at the Placita Mexico grocery in Wahneta, said he has helped officers who don't speak Spanish.

"If there's a crash outside, I go and help translate," Torres said.

In small towns like Mascotte in Lake County, where agricultural jobs have always attracted large concentrations of immigrants unlikely to speak English, attracting bilingual officers is critical but a challenge.

"You can't find out what the problem is and you can't relate back to them how to deal with it," said Mascotte police Chief Steven Allen, whose force of 10 sworn officers has one that speaks Spanish in a town that is 44 percent Hispanic.

"They pay their taxes just like anyone else and deserve the same service," Allen said. He advertises openings in Orlando and Miami, where he thinks he has the best chance of attracting bilingual applicants. For a current slot he was pleased that two of the eight applicants are bilingual.

The recruiting dilemma

It is hard to find the complete package of job candidates with fluency in two languages and the qualifications to pass all of the other requirements for careers in law enforcement, recruiters said.

"First, you need Hispanic recruiters," said Bobby Neil, recruiter for the Polk Sheriff's Office. "You just relate better."

Neil targets colleges with large Hispanic concentrations and military bases in Florida and Georgia and advertises in Spanish-language media.

Smaller departments struggle to win the few bilingual candidates in highly competitive recruiting.

"If we can get any that speak another language, that's a plus," said Steve Olson, spokesman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, which has not only speakers of Spanish, but also French, Creole, German and Japanese, among others.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office has recruiting advantages with its pay scale and reputation, but even there, matching a Hispanic population of nearly 19 percent in a county where one quarter of the residents speak a language other than English at home is a challenge.

Orange has a sizeable pool of Hispanic applicants, but many times their English proficiency isn't up to the department's requirements, said sheriff's Hispanic liaison Carlos Torres, who works on outreach projects and teaches a diversity class at Valencia Community College for law-enforcement recruits.

One of Orange's biggest advantages, which it shares with Orlando and Polk County law enforcement, is a sponsorship program that allows the department to hire uncertified recruits and pay their way through the police academy.

The Osceola Sheriff's Office, which serves a county that is almost 30 percent Hispanic, doesn't have that program but aggressively recruits in area academies and encourages every new class to apply.

"It's tough in our agency because we don't have a sponsorship program," said Osceola sheriff's Lt. Dan Weis. "They have to have already enrolled in the academy or have their certification."

Leigh Culver, who researches language barriers in law enforcement at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said when she worked as a police officer in Missouri there were times when no one was available to read suspects their rights, explain a report or how to post bond in their own language.

Just as important, the language barrier blocks what Culver called the "everyday 'Hi, how are you?' contact" that is critical to building up a level of trust with the community. That one-on-one contact is how Diaz spends much of his shift in Wahneta, dropping in to chat with business owners who usually have a good idea of what's going on in the neighborhood.

Eddie Gonzalez, a Wahneta auto mechanic, said 90 percent of his customers are Hispanic and, because he is bilingual, they often come to him if they have a problem. He usually refers them to Diaz.

"It's hard for Hispanics to get along with officers because they don't understand their language," Gonzalez said. "If it was up to me I would like to have at least a half dozen more [bilingual officers] in this neighborhood."

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